Less than 30 minutes after Notre Dame unsurprisingly moved within seven poll points of being a unanimous No. 2 in the latest AP college football poll on Sunday, a more seismic bit of news involving the Irish (9-0, 8-0 ACC) wafted into cyberspace.
Derek Mason was fired as the head football coach at Vanderbilt.
There’s not a lot of dots to traverse in order to connect a school that’s a loss at Georgia on Saturday away from the first winless season in a less-than-storied football history with Notre Dame’s coveted, third-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea.
Vanderbilt would be foolish not to gauge the interest of a man who holds undergrad and master’s degrees from the school and who walked on to the Commodores football program as a fullback (2002-04) after transferring from Belmont.
And Lea deems himself ready for his first Power 5 head coaching job as evidenced as his deep run at the Boston College vacancy last winter.
But is Lea going home to Nashville, Tenn., a fit? And is the timing right?
Vanderbilt has amassed just four winning seasons in the past 45 years and a 6-29 mark during Lea’s three seasons there as a player.
But Lea found a way to turn the chronic losing into a positive during his playing days, which included all of 14 touches in game action.
“There was a nucleus of players that never flinched,” Lea told the Tribune back in 2018 of his Vanderbilt experience. “Even though we didn’t have the success we wanted, we never stopped, we never relented. The seed was kind of planted in me of how special it is to be part of a brotherhood that fights.
“Truthfully, the string of not accomplishing really kind of thrust me into coaching, because that sting is what kind of drove me into saying, ‘I want to be able to do this at a high level. I want to win a national championship. I want to be able to compete for big games.’ ”
There’s a sentiment that the 38-year-old would be a strong candidate to follow 11th-year head coach Brian Kelly at Notre Dame once the 59-year-old Kelly moves on. Kelly’s contract was clandestinely extended through the end of the 2024 season last December and announced to the world on Sept. 12.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Kelly Era won’t end before 2024 — or after it — only that when he turns 60 in October, he’ll be the first man to do so while actively coaching the Irish.
Someone needs to block all calls from the 615 area code to Coach Lea’s phone— Dino DeMilio (@dinodemilio) November 29, 2020
But would Lea be better off getting head coaching experience somewhere, then coming back to Notre Dame? And if he can’t get James Franklin results at Vandy (6-7, 9-4 and 9-4 in 2011-13), would that take the shine off his résumé?
Vanderbilt, moving on from Mason just shy of his seventh complete season and a 27-55 bottom line, timed up the move to give recruits signing next month (Dec. 16-18) a fair shot of evaluating the new coach for themselves.
With Notre Dame a win away from clinching a berth in the Dec. 19 ACC Championship Game and its most likely playoff scenarios a Jan. 1 playoff semifinal game or a Jan. 2 Orange Bowl berth, Vanderbilt’s timetable wouldn’t be ideal for Lea.
The man who came to Notre Dame in 2017 as a linebackers coach has the leverage of staying at Notre Dame to wait for something better, and that could still happen later in this coaching carousel cycle.
For now Lea goes from having to tame the nation’s then-No. 4 offense in North Carolina last Friday in a 31-17 Irish road victory to facing the nation’s No. 126 offense (out of 127 active FBS teams) in Syracuse, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
It’s the season finale for the Orange (1-9, 1-8 ACC), the 15th-place team in the 15-team ACC.
Notre Dame, under Lea, is a Kelly Era-best fourth nationally in rushing defense (85.3 yards per game). ND’s No. 3 ranking in third-down defense (25.2%) and No. 8 standing in tackles for loss per game (8.3) are also Kelly Era superlatives.
The Irish are 10th in both total defense (303.4 yards) and scoring defense (16.7 points) and 18th in pass-efficiency defense (115.9 ratings points).
Lea was a member of Syracuse’s staff for three seasons (2013-15) as its linebackers coach, before reuniting with Mike Elko at Wake Forest in 2016. Elko brought Lea to ND in 2017, then bolted for Texas A&M after a year of serving as ND’s defensive coordinator.
Lea was elevated to replace him and he’s been ascending ever since.
The Irish do have a makeup game at Wake Forest (4-3, 3-3 ACC) on Dec. 12, provided the Demon Deacons can play. Their Dec. 5 game with Miami has already been scratched because of COVID-19 issues on the Wake campus.
The matchup was originally scheduled for Sept. 26, but was postponed when Notre Dame’s team paused practice for nine days because of a pervasive COVID outbreak.